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Artillery Row

Matthew Parris and the illusion of independence

Those in flight from human dependency are the ones who cannot be realistic

In a much-discussed Times article on assisted dying, columnist Matthew Parris has bitten the bullet. Not literally, though. That would be dangerous, and Parris (age 74) isn’t planning on dying just yet.  

He’s not against other people considering it, though, or even having a push in that direction. Otherwise “how are our economies going to pay for the ruinously expensive overhang that dare not speak its name: old age and infirmity?” Perhaps, he suggests, if assisted dying becomes an option, it would be “selfish” for the very needy not to take it. 

I am not against assisted dying — at least, not in theory. The thought of extreme suffering towards the end of life terrifies me. It is not foolish to want an alternative. Even so, the assisted dying debate has granted some people an option to say what they really feel — about mental illness, about dependency, about human worth — in ways that are truly concerning. How can we talk about dying when some have so flimsy a grasp of what other people’s lives mean? 

Reading Parris’s piece, you get an inaccurate (if not uncommon) impression of the human lifecycle. Babies and children are dependent (and permitted to be, since they grow out of it) and very old people are (which is less acceptable, because they’re only going to get more so). Between these two stages, “properly” independent adults contribute to the world and by doing so, earn their place in it. 

Caring work is devalued — made invisible, left unpaid — in order to spare those who rely on it

There is little recognition of the push-pull of interdependency, of the fact that we are always switching places, always reliant on others to greater or lesser degrees. It’s a point that has often been made in feminist economics. Caring work is devalued — made invisible, left unpaid — in order to spare those who rely on it (not just individuals, but businesses and entire economies) the “shame” of acknowledging their constant reliance on others. Economic Man, writes Katrine Marçal, “is rational, distant, objective, competitive, alone, independent, selfish, driven by common sense and in the process of conquering the world”. Until he gets too old, and then he might as well not exist.  

Parris is absolutely correct that as a society, we are not equipped to provide care to all who need it. This is not unrelated to how we view care itself, which in turn is related to the very mindset Parris exemplifies. In Care and Capitalism, the sociologist Kathleen Lynch describes “the dependency that called for care” being viewed as “an aberration in the adult human condition”: “Being an adult and a citizen was closely aligned with the ideals of independence and autonomy in the post-industrial era; there were no ‘good’ dependencies for adults”. Rather than think about something so shameful and abject, some people find it easier to think about death. 

The Times piece focuses primarily on the very old because this creates an illusion of promoting intergenerational justice. The most individualistic of arguments can be repackaged as a collective “we’ve had our time”. No need to be a burden. Time to move on and make room for those who come next (reforming social care and redistributing wealth — in ways which benefit all generations — is apparently too much like hard work). 

Yet there is nothing in Parris’s arguments that would not also apply to someone such as my brother, who has never had a paid job and has always relied on carers. He’s also two decades younger than Parris. When, one might ask, would Parris consider it an appropriate moment for someone such as him to bow out? And yes, I know — I’m relying on personal anecdote. How crass and unsophisticated! It’s a serious question, though. If this is to be a new way of thinking  —  if we cannot afford extreme senescence or desperate infirmity for as many such individuals as our society is producing” — I’d like to know how many years someone who is not going to be well at any stage of their life is allowed. When do we give them the “unspoken hint” that their time is up? I would like an actual number here. 

Parris pretends to be doing the hard, cold thinking so the rest of us softies, with our rose-tinted glasses, don’t have to. Nonetheless, I’d suggest his position is the cosseted, childish one. Most people know that care work is incredibly difficult, that an ageing population requires a reformed care system, that health isn’t assured at any life stage, that a drawn-out, painful death is something to be feared. There is nothing glamorous or affirming about severe illness. There should be more, not less, recognition of the costs — not just economic, but emotional — of caring for someone with extensive needs. Leaping straight ahead to “it’s all too much” is not brave. In any case, I doubt very much that having the capacity to consent to being nudged off this mortal coil correlates to Parris’s vision of which people are valuable and which are not. What of those who don’t get the message? 

I am not going to say whether or not my brother, or others in his position, “have lives worth living” or “bring a smile to the faces of everyone around them” or “still have so much to offer”. I am sick of seeing it subtly (or not so subtly) implied that some people — people who may have more right than most to feel a deep sense of grievance — ought to justify their existence with cheeriness, gratitude and pluck. Nor should their humanity be dependent on carers having to deny their own feelings of despair or even resentment. It is difficult to care for someone knowing that there is no respite. It is what people do, though. There is something profoundly immature about a checks and balances understanding of human existence, one that divides life up into discrete (and ultimately imaginary) phases of giving or taking. 

Matthew Parris clearly believes he is still adding enough to the world to merit remaining in it (although as many have asked, how can he be so certain?). He is not, of course, willing to push everything to its logical conclusion. Metaphors of youth — “the raw and unbridled energies of an emerging, younger, nimbler and very different world, led by countries like China” — potentially take aim for the super-rich of the West, only to glide off course and hit the usual targets, the old, the poor and the sick (“in times of general hardship,” writes Margaret Morganroth Gullette, “one group is demonized for being dependent (old people) but not another (say, financiers)”). 

he is cagey about the exact criteria for assessing who is “in deficit”

Parris might not apologise for treating “human beings as units — in deficit or surplus to the collective”, but beyond gripes about who uses incontinence pads, he is cagey about the exact criteria for assessing who is “in deficit”. Not him, obviously. Not yet. “It might sound brutal,” he writes, ever the hard man. Well, perhaps. If anything, it manages to sound both evil and infantile. Enabling people to make choices freely, without coercion, and providing enough support for carers are two of the hardest problems we face. Chest-beating over harsh choices without specifying the details takes no effort at all. 

Those in flight from human dependency are the squeamish ones. It’s about time they faced up to reality.

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